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Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Friday, December 31, 2010

"Do You Know What You Saw?" Ten Operas I want to see...again.

(And yes, trainspotters, this is the 400th post of Superconductor. Thanks for reading!)

I've been to a lot of operas. I've seen the well-known staples of the repertory and the odd late flowerings of German Romanticism. Here's a quick look at ten operas I wouldn't mind seeing again in the theater. And just to make it interesting, they're by ten different composers.
Samuel Ramey as Mefistofele at the 
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Tony Morano.

1) Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito

Back in the glory days of the New York City Opera, this massive take on the Faust legend (told from the devil's perspective) was a regular player on the stage at 20 Lincoln Center. Norman Triegel (and later, Samuel Ramey) reigned supreme. A revival there is unlikely, but with the right bass, this can be a compelling evening.
Mr. Ramey sang the part at the Met in 2000, in a production imported from the San Francisco Opera.


(...and it goes well with...)

2) Doktor Faust by Ferrucio Busoni

The worst example of Regietheater I can recall at the Met (yes, worse than the Attila from last year) was the 2001 Peter Mussbach staging of Busoni's final opera. Despite a great cast, this very weird staging (featuring a stage surface covered with moguls and the main characters wearing fedoras, trenchcoats, and sliding back and forth on rail-mounted La-Z-Boys) makes me feel like I still haven't seen this opera.

3) Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz

The Met decided to mount Berlioz' first opera in 2003 as part of music director James Levine's ongoing fascination with this French Romantic composer. While the company is planning a 2012-13 revival of Les Troyens, plans to bring back this story of an Italian Renaissance sculptor and his artistic struggles were scuppered by general manager Peter Gelb for "economic reasons" in 2009. Instead, we got a weird revival of La Traviata, with a disastrous opening night.
Land of confusion: A scene from Doktor Faust.
4) Susannah by Carlisle Floyd

First presented at the Met in 1999 as a vehicle for Renée Fleming, this is a true American opera: the story of a Southern girl, a preacher's lust, and the tragedy that follows. With the right singer in the title role, this is a powerful, moving work from the composer of Of Mice and Men. One of the best American operas written in the 20th century.


5) Akhnaten by Philip Glass

This is the last and in some ways, the most accessible of Glass' first trilogy of operas based on historic/messianic figures. Glass uses dead languages to retell the story of the Pharoah who invented monotheism in 1370 B.C. He substituted worship of the sun-disk "Aten" for the regular pantheon of Egyptian gods. (It didn't take.) I saw this in 1984, when I was 11 years old, and would be fascinated to experience this opera again.

6) The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky

The Met's 1998 Jonathan Miller staging of Stravinsky's English-language opera has already been revived once, with Paul Groves replacing the late Jerry Hadley in the role of Tom Rakewell. This is a powerful, moving work in Stravinsky's neo-classical style. In addition to being the only opera to have a bearded lady as a major character, the work (with a libretto by W.H. Auden) has Faustian overtones in the devilish character of Nick Shadow. And yes, when I saw this opera, Nick was played by...Samuel Ramey.

7) Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner

I saw this once--the one time this opera was performed here by the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden. Palestrina was staged at the Met with a stellar cast of German singers, with Thomas Moser in the title role. Hans Pfitzner's opera retells a (false) story of the great composer Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina and his struggles against church censorship and the Council of Trent. The music is really good, even if the second act makes no dramatic sense.


8) Ariane et Barbe-Bleu by Paul Dukas

City Opera staged this rare Dukas work in 2005. Written by the composer of The Sorceror's Apprentice, this is a very different take on the Bluebeard with a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, author of Pelléas et Mélisande. I saw it when the American Symphony Orchestra presented the work under the baton of Leon Botstein. But that was a concert version. I never got a chance to see the '05 production. How about a revival?

9) The Mines of Sulphur by Richard Rodney Bennett

This 20th century story of bandits who encounter the supernatural in the course of a home invasion is a fine and underrated example of 20th century British opera. The City Opera staged Mines in 2005 and should seriously consider a revival. Richard Rodney Bennett is a powerful, tonal composer best known for his film work, including the fine score for the film Murder on the Orient Express.

10) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner

I've seen every run of this opera since 1995. The Met's magnificent Otto Schenck staging is a relic of the Joseph Volpe era. But it's also the best of the nine Wagner stagings put on by the German director in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Of course I have it on DVD, but there's no substitute for a live six-hour feast of Meistersinger--it's like Oktoborfest--without the hangover!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Concert Review: Out With the New, In With the Old

Alan Gilbert. Photo © 2010 by Chris Lee
The final New York Philharmonic subscription program of 2010 was to feature two new compositions and a rare work by Paul Hindemith. But Sunday's blizzard forced New York's oldest orchestra to cancel its Monday rehearsal, removing all three works from the program. Luckily, the orchestra had last-minute replacements ready to go, and presented a full, entertaining program of beloved classical works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.


Although The Nutcracker is among the most frequently performed ballets in the repertory, it's not every day that you get to hear this music played by an orchestra of this caliber. Alan Gilbert and company offered an unusual arrangement of the Suite. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy was dropped. In its place, the complete  Divertissement offered, including the Spanish Dance and the frenzied Mother Gigogne and the Clowns among the more familiar excerpts.

The excellent Philharmonic woodwinds were to the fore for the Arabian and Chinese Dances, not to mention the Dance of the Toy Flutes. The band played the Waltz of the Flowers with sweep and elegance.  producing crisp, clean textures made this familiar music sound fresh.

The same vigor went into the opening one-two punch of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin and the Valse Triste, a Sibelius work that depicts a dance with death. The Onegin excerpt was an energetic curtain raiser with fine playing from the Philharmonic brass. Mr. Gilbert produced eloquent old-world dance rhythms from his orchestra, with fine string playing leading the way in the Sibelius piece.

The second half of the program opened with Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins, featuring members of the Philharmonic's two violin sections playing the delicate, interwoven solo parts. Leading a stripped-down baroque-size orchestra, Mr. Gilbert made Vivaldi's music sound curiously modern and minimalist, a possible blueprint for the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

The full orchestra returned for an effective pairing of Debussy and Ravel. The Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was taken at a very slow tempo, stretching the fabric of Debussy's music and revealing new aspects of the score to the careful listener. Bolero, Ravel's crescendo of "anti-music" gave the whole orchestra a chance to show their stuff at ever-increasing volume. Mr. Gilbert maintained careful control over the dynamics of the piece, and conducted a performance of the utmost clarity, precision and power.

Bach Underground

Or: The Cellist in Times Square
Dale Henderson. Photo © Daniela Sessa

Early yesterday evening, my partner and I were dealing with the subways, on our way to attend a New York Philharmonic concert. We're changing trains (from the R to the 1--no expresses in a New York still digging out from the Boxing Day Blizzard) when suddenly we hear...Bach?

Cellist Dale Henderson, a Bronx-based professional musician and cello teacher was playing Bach on the uptown 1, 2, 3, platform, working his way through one of the 'cello suites. (I don't remember which one it was.) His performance was a small, audible voice of sanity in the middle of this post-blizzard bustle.


Johann Sebastian Bach's six Suites for Solo Cello are the most important literature ever written for the instrument. It is likely that the Suites were written during Bach's Cöthen period. They may have intended as a series of exercises for those who wished to master the instrument. After Bach's death, the Suites were mostly unknown, until they were discovered by cellist Pablo Casals. His recording of them (the first ever made) is still considered a pinnacle of the arts.

We stood, enraptured by the sounds emanating from his carved rosewood instrument, the delicate dance movements, the earthy tones of the low strings. There's nothing quite like the sound of rational music in the middle of chaos--it reminded me, at the end a long year of concerts and reviews, of why I do this and why I love it so.

As Mr. Henderson reached the end of a movement, his bow slid back and forth across the strings. Playing a coda and final cadence, the bow almost jabbed an eager commuter who didn't want to hear anything about Bach. The artist recovered, changing to a deft backward stroke as he sounded the final chord. It was a nifty little move, and one done in the service of good music.

You can check out this remarkable artist at his Facebook page or on Twitter.. By the way, Mr. Henderson does not put out a hat for donations, and he does not accept tips for his playing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Year in Reviews Part III: Recordings

Part III of The Year We Made Blog Posts

In the spirit of the Penguin Guide,
 here's some Radish Rosettes.
This has been an interesting year for the classical music industry, which shows slow signs of recovering from the rock-bottom of 2008 and 2009.

While record stores continued to close, the industryl started working on selling music online through ITunes, the Amazon Mp3 store and other outlets. There are still obstacles, but it's nice to have an entire opera uploaded quickly to your computer for perusal that very afternoon.

The major labels (and minor label conglomerates) put out some real quality stuff in 2010. And budget cutbacks meant that a much lower proportion of crap was released.

So here's the best of the year.

Best Opera Recording: Mozart: Die Zauberflöte
Akademie fur Alte-Musik, Berlin cond. René Jacobs
A Flute for the ages, with all the trimmings.
"By opening up all the standard cuts, (Mr. Jacobs) treats the opera's libretto as organic dialogue between living, breathing theatrical characters."

Best Orchestra Recording: Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 (Haas Edition)
Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Christian Thielemann
Thielemann reaches for the stellar regions with this epic, slowed-down take on Bruckner's final completed symphony.
"Made in September of 2009, this is an ideal match of players and conductor, as they build a gorgeous cathedral of sound over the symphony's 85-minute length."

Best Historic Recording: Mozart Idomeneo from Glyndebourne
It's Luciano Pavarotti's breakout performance in this Mozart opera seria. And we love the cover art. No, really.
"Listening to this set, one gets the sense of a young man on his way up, about to conquer the world."

Best "Rediscovered" Opera: Leoncavallo: I Medici
Orchestra e coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino cond. Alberto Veronesi
"Placído Domingo was 70 when he recorded this, and sounds in fine, burly voice as he adds yet another notch to his belt. He gives a compelling performance as Giuliano di Medici."

Best Opera on DVD: Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Les Arts Florissants cond. William Christie
"The real reason to see Fairy Queen is the entertaining series of masques at the end of each act, which feature spectacular singing and staging that will make you think twice about haystacks."

Best Opera on DVD ReissueIl Trovatore from Vienna
Vienna State Opera cond. Herbert von Karajan
"Karajan conducts his crack Vienna orchestra as if he is leading his own invasion of Spain."

Best Chamber Music Recording Haydn: The Complete Baryton Trios
Esterházy Ensemble
This box actually came out as part of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition. As the first recordings of these works written for this unusual instrument (which happened to be played by Haydn's patron) this set of 126 elegant string trios provides unique insight into a dark corner of the vast Haydn catalogue. Now available seperately on a 21-disc bargain box from Brilliant Classics.

Best Choral Recording: Verdi: Requiem
Chicago Symphony Orchestra cond. Riccardo Muti
"(Muti) whips his forces into a frenzy and drives the orchestra forward into a devastating recreation of the last trumpets and the Day of Judgment."

Best Reissue (or the "Thank God, it's back in the catalogue" Award)
Emerson String Quartet: The Beethoven Quartets
Crisp, clean playing from the Emersons and a fearsome take on Beethoven's most difficult chamber work, the mighty Grosse Fugue
"By the time the last quartet is reached, the listener may finally understand why Beethoven scrawled 'Muss es sein?...Es muss sein!' on the manuscript."

Best Box SetSchumann: The Masterworks
Forget the weird packaging, this 35-disc monster is the best way to dive into the music of one of the most important composers of the 20th century. While the choice of recordings here (Gardiner's symphony cycle over Kubelik's? Really?) is not always perfect, this is an excellent compilation.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recordings Review: Release the Horns

The Thielemann Bruckner Eighth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christian Thielemann. Photo © 2010 Dresden Staatskapelle
This live recording of the Bruckner Eighth marks Christian Thielemann's first recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle since accepting the post of Principal Conductor with that historic German orchestra. It is the finest Bruckner recording to emerge from a major orchestra in several years.

In a Silent Way: 4'33"

Two noted music critics at a performance of 4'33"
Image of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy © Hal Roach Library/laurel-and-hardy.com.
There's been a lot of stuff on this blog recently about 4'33", the iconic piece of anti-music by composer John Cage. Over in the UK, there was even an effort to get the piece played as the BBC's Holiday Single, à la the film Love Actually.

Anyway, here's a recent performance from Dutch television featuring composer, conductor and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw offering his interpretation of the piece in front of a television audience. I am sure that you will find it interesting...listening.



If that's not enough about 4'33" then check out my recent 'review' of a studio MP3 recording of the work, currently available on Amazon.com.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Year in Reviews Part II: Orchestral Concerts and Choral Music

Our wrap-up of The Year We Made Blog Posts.

The look back continues, with links back to reviews recalling the best hours spent at concert halls in 2010. 
Valery Gergiev, plotting on how to win this award for 2011, too.
Photo courtesy Columbia Artists Management Inc.
Conductor of the Year: Valery Gergiev
Mr. Gergiev was all over New York's musical map this year.


Congratulation, Maestro--you're a busy man and we're the better for it.


Best Orchestral Concert: New York Philharmonic
Stravinsky's Firebird and the Symphony of Psalms
"Mr. Gergiev's freewheeling interpretation of the score caused more than one touch-and-go moment in the early movements. The conductor recovered, moving his fingers like the fluttering of a bird and drawing lovely sounds from the orchestra."

Comeback of the Year: Seiji Ozawa with the Saito Kinen Orchestra
"Mr. Ozawa moved with surety through the text, drawing fire from the brass and exquisite textures from the chamber-sized orchestra-within-an-orchestra that accompanies the soldiers' songs."

Best Music Festival: The Russian Stravinsky at the New York Philharmonic.
The concert series featured all the major Stravinsky works, including Les Noces, Oedipus Rex (with Anthony Dean Griffey and Waltraud Meier) and the Dhiagalev ballet scores.

Best Choral Performance Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
"When the magnificent ASO Chorus lifted their voices in the Kyrie, the full measure of Janáček's genius was revealed in this performance of the Glagolitic Mass."

Best New Composition: High Line by Ryan Francis.
Performed by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
"Swelling, surging figures in the brass and atmospheric percussion and winds to create the sound of a sunny day atop the elevated park."

Best Modern Music Performance: Kraft at the New York Philharmonic
"As the opening chords dwindle, the textures and rich ideas of Mr. Lindberg's music unveil themselves."

Opera Review: Prince (and Princess) Humperdinck!

dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Delights with Königskinder
Königskinder is composer Engelbert Humperdinck's follow-up to Hansel und Gretel. It received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 28, 1910, 100 years ago. Following a run of performances in Berlin, it sank into obscurity. On Tuesday night, the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble made a good case for a full-scale revival.

Geraldine Ferrar as the Goose Girl in Königskinder.
Photo © 1910 The Metropolitan Opera Archive

The company marked the centennial with one performance, an abridged version that still allowed the glories of this neglected work to shine through. Ironically, the performance, at the Gerald Lynch Theater, (part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) took place just down the street from the Met.

Like Hansel, this is a fairy-tale, or Märschenoper. However, the royal children in question, a young prince and a strange "Goose Girl" (raised, of course by an evil witch) meet with a dark, bitter fate. Rejected by the common people, they flee the city and nearly starve to death in the woods, before choosing a Wagnerian end: eating the old witch's poisoned bread. The last act is heart-breaking, as the lovers expire and pass into legend.

Under the direction of Christopher Fecteau, the opera was cut to 90 minutes from the original score's two and a half hours, and played by a seven-piece chamber ensemble. Cleverly, the orchestration incorporated a harmonium (a keyboard instrument that uses wind and reeds) to supplement the lack of woodwinds and strings. Mr. Fecteau conducted his small forces as if they were a big Wagnerian band, drawing sweep and power from his little group.

The innovative orchestration supported a strong, young cast. Soprano Katherine Wellinger was compelling as the Goose Girl, soaring through her vocal with a fine lyric instrument. This part is about the same weight as a 'light' Wagner heroine: Elisabeth, Elsa or Eva. Ms. Wellinger's voice is right in that fach, and she was well-suited to Humperdinck's innovative melidic writing. The finest moment came at the fulcrum of the work in Act II: the meeting at the city gates when the children recognize each other. It was like the end of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but without the psychodrama.

Caleb Stokes was a strong presence as the prince, who poses as a beggar for reasons known only to the author of the tale. He pushed his bright-toned instrument hard in the first two acts amnd expressed passion, resignation and loss in the final scene. The Witch was acted by Joanna Rice. But the mezzo was vocally indisposed, and soprano Jennifer Moore sang the role from the pit. She did a great job in that difficult circumstance. Baritone Willam Amory was a compelling presence as the Minstrel, and his final eulogy brought the opera to a satisfying close.

In the program materials supplied to the audience, Mr. Fecteau has expressed his wish to perform a full version of Königskinder, with the full orchestration and no cuts to the three-act work. This performance would be a worthy enterprise. (If he pulls it off, I'll be first in line to see it.) This is an important, underrated opera. Its 100-year absence from the stages of New York City is nothing less than criminal neglect.

The Year in Reviews Part I: Opera

Our wrap-up of The Year We Made Blog Posts.


This was an exciting year for classical music lovers. There were some exceptional orchestral concerts, some great operas, and even a few new productions worth noting. So let's take a look back with some links back at the year in music.

Honk if you loved The Nose. Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
We start with opera. This was a year of highs and lows. It included great performances by smaller opera companies, some epic evenings at the Met, and the continued survival of the New York City Opera. Also, the Opera Orchestra of New York returned to Carnegie Hall, staging an engaging double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and La Navarraise.

The list below is by no means definitive--and there were plenty of performances considered. Here's Part I of the Best of 2010

Best Opera Performance: L'Incoronazione d'Poppea at Juilliard.
"The student cast met the opera's decadence with a lush performance that caressed the ears for three hours."

Best New Production: The Nose at the Met.
"From the strident opening chords (which sound suspiciously like "Ah-choo!") the work lurches forward in a kaleidoscopic style...."

Worst New Production: Attila at the Met.
"The chorus are relegated to a Nibelheim-like "pit of despair" below the main level of the stage."

Best Revival: Intermezzo at New York City Opera.
"All ends happily as husband and wife sing a twenty-five minute duet in which they work out all their problems in full Straussian sound."

Best Star Turn: Anna Netrebko as Norina in Don Pasquale at the Met.
"Ms. Netrebko acted out every opera house manager's worst backstage nightmare to great comic effect."

Opera Singer of the Year: Elīna Garanča
For her performances in Carmen at the Met and La Navarraise at Carnegie Hall.
"The highlight of her performance was the "Card Song," sung with intelligence and resonant low notes from the chest."

Opera Conductor of the Year: Sir Simon Rattle leading Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met.
"Sir Simon Rattle stretched the textures of this work to their Wagnerian breaking point, taking very slow tempos at the outset."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opera Preview: Learning to Love La Traviata

Ed. Note: This is a preview/recording recommendations piece for the new Met production of La Traviata. To read the Superconductor review of the January 4, 2011 performance at the Met, click here.

I used to "hate" La Traviata.
Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta in La Traviata. Photo by Klaus Lefebvre © The Netherlands Opera
Yes, I know. It's one of Verdi's greatest works. The passionate story of the courtesan Violetta Valery and her race against the clock of tuberculosis is one of the most personal, and moving works Verdi ever wrote. The music is great: from the famous Brindisi to "Sempre libera," "Di Provenza il mar" and other great highlights.

But it took me a long time to "like" it.

Part of that is because I associate Violetta's illness with the final sickness and (eventual) death of my father when I was 11 years old. Traviata was the first opera that we went to without Dad--he was too ill to attend. Even after he passed away (in Feb. of 1985), Mom and I kept going to the opera--which is part of why I do this now.

As I got into this business, I made sure over the years that I saw very few Traviata performances. I saw both productions by Franco Zeffirelli at the Met, but when the opera came up on my regular subscription I'd exchange it for something else, make an excuse, or simply stay home. I couldn't handle it.


I compensated. I learned everything I could about it, so I could write confidently and convincingly. I owned one recording (more on that in a bit) but it sat in its jewel case, silent. I even interviewed a soprano (Patricia Racette) debuting as Violetta in the '99 Met production.

Last year, a good friend of mine got sick. Really sick. She has cancer--a different kind than my Dad. She's still alive as I write this, fighting like hell and hanging on to her life with both hands.

That experience gave me a whole new perspective on Traviata. I started listening to it. Getting recordings. Working my ears around the notes of the score--learning what makes it tick, something that a certain conductor failed to do at a Met performance I attended last April. All this exposure to Traviata helped immeasurably. It made the fear and trauma of going through the (repeated) experience of having someone close to me sick easier to deal with.


Now, the Met will end 2010 with a new Traviata, a spare, intense staging from German director Willy Decker. Premiereing on New Years Eve, this is the same production that was recorded and filmed for Salzburg with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. At the Met, Marina Poplavskaya stars as Violetta. The Russian diva is fresh off her success as Elisabeth in Don Carlo, and should bring all the fire to Violetta that she had to rein in for that opera.

She is paired with the American tenor Matthew Polenzani, well known for his Met performances of Mozart and Wagner. Gianandrea Noceda conducts. At the press conference last week, he promised a driving rendition that emphasizes the central crisis of the opera--the leading character running out of time.

On to the recording recommendations:
Coro e Orchestra La Scala, cond. Antonio Votto
Violetta: Renata Scotto
Alfredo: Gianni Raimondi
Germont: Ettore Bastianini
The glories of this 1963 recording are the young Renata Scotto (in prima voce as Violetta) and the rock-solid presence of baritone Ettore Bastianini as the elder Germont. I've recommended it before, and will continue to do so.

Bavarian State Orchestra cond. Carlos Kleiber
Violetta: Ileana Cotrubas
Alfredo: Placído Domingo
Germont: Sherrill Milnes
Carlos Kleiber was an extraordinary conducting talent who made very few recordings. This was one of his best, a studio, note-complete Traviata with a sensitive heroine in Ileana Cotrbas. The redoubtable team of Sherrill Milnes and Placído Domingo recorded a lot of operas together in the 1970s, but they manage to convince the listener as father and son.



Coro e Orchestra della Scala cond. Riccardo Muti
Violetta: Tiziana Fabbricini
Alfredo: Roberto Alagna
Germont: Paolo Coni
Expert Verdi conducting and a compelling performance by Roberto Alagna as Alfredo. Tiziana Fabbricini is a very good, involving Violetta who is helped by the live, theatrical recording made in Italy's most famous opera house. Just reissued.

Opera Review: The Necessity of Relationship Counseling

Sir Simon Rattle Makes Pelléas et Mélisande Hum.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Victorian Uncertainty: Magdalena Kozena and
Stéphane Degout in Pelléas et Mélisande.
Photo © 2010 Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented the second of five performances of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande this season. This revival of a Jonathan Miller production transports the action to a big, spooky house in the 19th century, an appropriately gothic atmosphere for this fairy tale of love, jealousy, and a marriage gone horribly awry.

The star of the performance was Gerald Finley as Golaud, the prince caught in a romantic triangle with the two title characters. Mélisande (Magdalena Kozena) is his long-haired, strange bride found weeping in the woods. She marries Golaud, but falls in love with his half-brother Pelléas, a curious, unfulfilled romance that drives Golaud into a jealous frenzy. He kills his brother. Mélisande dies, heartbroken in the excruciating last act.

Debussy's opera lacks arias. Like the middle works of Wagner, everything is dialogue and interaction between two, maybe three characters in a series of 15 scenes. There are no conventional choruses or ensembles. In other words, great singing actors, are required. This cast has them.

Mr. Finley's finely detailed performance captured the deep flaws built into Golaud, and the slow build to violence over the evening's first four acts. An intelligent singer and a fine actor, Mr. Finley's performance got better as his rage seethed and bubbled, ending in grief and remorse at his wife's deathbed.

Magdalena Kozena (the wife of the evening's conductor, Sir Simon Rattle) was a strong, unconventional Mélisande, not the wilting flower associated with this role. There was something of the destructive faerie bride about her performance, something unearthly in her Act III solo in the tower. As she sang and combed her long, spilling hair, she drew Pelléas like a moth to a flame. Her Mélisande was reckless, not childlike, a destructive force that was, ultimately, destroyed.


Pelléas is the tricky part. Essentially passive, he is victimized, first by Mélisande and then by his brother. And to make things even more complicated, Debussy wrote the part so it can be sung by a tenor or a baritone. Stéphane Degout fits into the latter category. His high-lying instrument was well suited, reaching into the upper end of his range for the climactic love scene that ends in his demise.

The Met has surrounded these three fine leads with a strong supporting cast. Bass Willard White is particularly moving as Arkel, if not always steady of tone. The young Neel Ram Nagarajan was ideal in the part of Yniold, Golaud's son. This is one of the largest parts for a small child to be written into a major opera. Working with Mr. Finley, he made the scene where Golaud uses his son to spy on the title characters a chilling example of abuse by an obsessed parent. More moving was his solo scene in Act IV, staged here as a fitful nightmare.

Sir Simon Rattle stretched the textures of this work to their Wagnerian breaking point, taking very slow tempos at the outset and building momentum over the course of five acts. This unconventional approach paid off in the wealth of detail revealed--including hidden quotes from other operas! It is hard to believe that it has taken this long for this acclaimed British conductor to come to the Met. Happily, his arrival coincides with one of the finest revivals of the season.

An Open Letter to The Readers

And a one. And a two....
Hi folks. Paul Pelkonen here, the guy you see on the front page, the writer, editor, author (oh hell, Grand High Poobah) of Superconductor.

This has been an exciting year for this blog, and I wanted to take a minute to thank everyone who has helped to elevate this little publication to the status of a slightly bigger blog. That includes you, my readers new and old, people I've handed a business card to, and folks who have found me through Google, through blog links, or through word of mouth.

Two things changed for Superconductor in 2010. One was that I decided (given the dearth of available writing work) to treat this blog as an every-day responsibility. That meant a lot more writing, a lot more reviews, and (apparently) a lot more readers. I try to write whenever possible, and I hope you find my 'voice' entertaining, informative, and above all, honest. I've been in and around the opera and music business for 14 years now, and I'm glad to be working in it under my own "flag."

The second was that I really wanted to see Il Mondo della Luna as presented by the excellent Gotham Chamber Opera. Partially because I really like Haydn. But also because I wanted to see what an opera would be like if it were presented at the (former) Hayden Planetarium.

I mean, how often do you get to see an in-the-round opera performed under a dome? I asked for tickets. They said "yes." And I started writing letters. Small opera companies at first, and then the big guys. The New York Philharmonic. Carnegie Hall. The New York City Opera. And most of them said yes, time and energy and caffeine permitting.

I still keep my subscription at the Met--you can find me in the Family Circle most Monday nights, but the generosity of New York's premiere performing arts venues has been a big part of this year's success. So to any press agents, record company folks, and media representatives reading me: THANK YOU.

But this thing is really about the readers and keeping you informed. So I'd like some feedback. Opera reviews are a given, and people seem to like the previews I've been doing for the Met season.

So what do you want to see?
  • More CD recommendations?
  • Guides to "Classical 101" or "Opera 101"?
  • Shopping Guides or Buyer's Guides?
  • Interviews with actual opera singers?
  • Me to stop blathering and write the Pelléas et Mélisande review?
  • An editorial page with more blathering?
Write in and let me know. Comment here or e-mail me at ppelkonen@gmail.com. And thank you, for being part of Superconductor!

On to 2011!

Yours, in the cheap seats (OK, sometimes they're free).

Paul J. Pelkonen
Author, Editor, Publisher,
Grand High Poohbah,
Superconductor

Monday, December 20, 2010

Concert Review: Ozawa Returns, War Requiem Transcends

He's back: Seiji Ozawa.
Seiji Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra concluded their week-long residency at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night with a glowing performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The concert concluded the first part of the JapanNYC Festival, a Carnegie Hall celebration with Mr. Ozawa at its center.

The War Requiem was written to commemorate the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, 22 years after its destruction in the Second World War. Britten chose to set the Latin Mass for the dead, but with a twist. He added poems by Wilfred Owen that explored warfare from both sides: from the perspectives of an English and a German soldier. The work combines the ritual of the Mass with the journey of the two enemy soldiers.
Benjamin Britten

Mr. Ozawa is a beloved figure in classical music, following his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However, he has spent the last two years battling esophageal cancer. Already a small man, he looked frail at Saturday's concert, adding an intermission to the program and conducting most of the performance while seated. Once the music started, he was alive and animated, leading the tremendous forces with flair and energy.

Mr. Ozawa built his reputation on large-scale choral works, and the War Requiem is ideally suited to his talents. He moved with surety through the text, drawing fire from the brass and exquisite textures from the chamber-sized orchestra-within-an-orchestra that accompanies the soldiers' songs. At times, he multi-tasked, turning in his seat to lead the children's choir (located in the Carnegie Hall balcony) with one hand, keeping the beat for the the massed forces of chorus and orchestra with the other.


The performance featured three strong vocal soloists. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought fine vocal acting and a strong instrument to the role of the English soldier. Baritone Matthais Goerne brought his experience in the role of Wozzeck to bear to relate a three-dimensional portrait of the German soldier.  Christiane Goerke used her piercing, Valkyrie-sized soprano to good effect, particularly in the final Libera Me. The choral work was extraordinary, with the final "Kyrie Eleison" and "Requesciat in Pace" stretched into shimmering chords that seemed to hang, weightless in the air.

The Saito Kinen Orchestra is an unusual ensemble, a divided, multicultural band that was founded by Mr. Ozawa in 1992. For the most part, the orchestra played well, with exceptional performances being delivered by the assembled chamber soloists. There was only one serious problem in the performance as the principal trumpet had trouble generating the proper nobility of tone in the opening of the Dies Irae. However, the brass players recovered in time for the mighty Tuba Mirum, as Mr. Ozawa built a solid wall of interlocking rhythms and noble horns to depict the sounding of the Last Judgment. It was an exciting moment, and one that reminded the listener of how much Mr. Ozawa has been missed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Hunting of the Snark

"And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined. Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor."--Otis B. Driftwood
Groucho Marx, Siegfried Ruman and Margaret Dumont in A Night at the Opera
© 1935 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.
I just learned from my good friend James Jorden that the magazine Opera News has just named
Opera Chic its "Essential Opera Blog". We here at Superconductor would like to congratulate our comrade in Milan on her achievement.

The venerable magazine (published by the good folks at the Metropolitan Opera Guild) commented that the writing on Opera Chic is "like that of a dedicated and informed adolescent fan," and that the publication "goes against the current of snarky one-liners often found on opera blogs, writing from a vantage point of admiration, not disdain."

Snarky one-liners?

Moi?

In the spirit of that award, here's a quick collection of snarky one-line synopses of operas. Just for the fun of it. Twenty-five of them, in alphabetical order. As a tip of the hat to my dear, departed father, I'll leave out No. 12. After all, it's the holidays, and there should be no "L."

Attila: No wonder he's out to sack Italy--the hungry Hun wants revenge for sticking him in those god-awful Prada costumes.

Bluebeard's Castle: Love, marriage and interior decorating issues predominate Béla Bartók's one-act drama. Now where will she put the couch?

La Cenerentola: Censors forced Rossini to remove the foot fetishism, but the work's still got "sole."

Daphne: "And early next summer, turned into a tree."

Ernani: Re-written for Broadway as Come Blow Your Horn.

La Forza del Destino: Say, is that thing loaded?

Götterdämmerung:
There once was a young man named Siggy.
He had a hot aunt, rather wiggy
She got him whacked out,
by a half-dwarven lout
And leapt in the fire: go figgy.

Les Huguenots: The Energizer bunny of French grand opera. It keeps going, and going....

I Pagliacci:
"What kind of clown are you?"
"The 'crying on the inside' kind, I guess."

Dick Johnson: Alias of the bandit hero of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. And a heck of a "porn name."

Kát'a Kabanová: It would be pretty snarky to make a joke about a tormented heroine who throws herself into a river. After all, this isn't the Ring....

Macbeth: We're not really allowed to mention the name of this opera. We won't tell you that it's about a Scottish king who seeks to consolidate his hold on the throne. No. Not Andrew Carnegie.

Nabucco: More than just an opera, it's also an Italian biscotti company!

Otello: The story of a Moorish general, the murder of the woman he loved, and a white Ford Bronco....

Parsifal: There are a million Parsifal jokes. They all start with "So this idiot walks into a forest and whacks the swan...."

The Queen of Spades: And then Ghermann gets offed by casino employees, who find out he knows the secret of the three cards.

Das Rheingold: Richard Wagner's opera about a small Brooklyn-based brewery struggling to compete in 1960's New York.

Simon Boccanegra: Free glass of water to whoever figures out the political plot of this opera set in Renaissance Genoa. Take it from the pitcher on the left.

The Turn of the Screw: Like 'The Nanny' but without Fran Drescher.

Un Ballo in Maschera Sex and murder in Sweden. Sounds like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Valzacchi and Annina: Operators of a "black newspaper" in Der Rosenkavalier and onstage inspiration to all of us opera bloggers.

Wozzeck: The only opera to ever use the word "Oxyaldehydanhydride." In German, no less.

Xerxes: Tree-hugger.

Young Siegfried: He runs away from home, kills his stepfather, beats up grandpa and then seduces his aunt. Who said romance was dead?

Die Zauberflöte: Alright. I'll be yours forever. But first, take off that bird costume!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Concert Review: New York Philharmonic Resurrects Handel's "Messiah"

Bernard Labadie. Photo by David Cannon

The New York Philharmonic performed Handel's Messiah as part of this year's holiday celebrations. Wednesday night featured a powerful, uplifting performance with four fine soloists under the skilled direction of conductor Bernard Labadie.

New York's classical music schedule is always crowded with  Messiah at this time of year.  But something about the New York Phiharmonic's performances is special. It could be the high quality of the choral singing, interacting with the orchestra's crack musicians. Or the presence of a strong conductor on the podium, leading Handel's most famous oratorio.

Either way, this year's run of Messiah has a definite French-Canadian twist. Mr. Labadie is from Québéc, along with his two female soloists: soprano Karina Gauvan and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Ms. Gauvan's big moment was "I know that my redeemer liveth", sung with soaring, inspirational tone. Ms. Lemieux's plummy alto filled in the range often taken by a countertenor, singing the recitatives with a firm delivery and her arias with power and a pleasing lower voice.

The male soloists were pretty good. Tenor Tilman Lichdi is a German import. He has a smallish, if pleasing voice--rather like a younger Ian Bostridge. Bass Andrew Foster Williams was impressive, maneuvering his rather large instrument through "Why do the Nations/He that Dwelleth", the lengthy aria that quotes the letters of St. Paul.

Mr. Foster-Williams' solo set up the "Hallelujah" Chorus, sung by the New York Choral Artists with close harmony and precise counterpoint. The famous chorus was taken at a brisk tempo, but did not feel at all hurried. The Philharmonic audience stood attentively for the "Hallelujah", a tradition started by King George II at the work's London premiere.

The Dune "Messiah"

Dune: Messiah. Original hardcover art by Jack Gaughan
(With apologies to Georg Friedrich Handel and Frank Herbert, whose Dune novels have provided endless hours of entertainment along with a good recipe for grilled, spiced giant sandworm.)

The "Kwisatz Haderach" Chorus:
from the oratorio Dune: Messiah,
written in the year 10,163
by Gringolet "Floyd" Handball.

This was discovered in a sheaf of withered documents inside an old Chianti crate in the cold storage room at the Bay Ridge Institute For Music and Elocution, located on 71st St. and Fifth Avenue.

(and yes Peter Schickele, I owe you a debt too.)

Chorus:
Kwisatz Had'rach! Kwisatz Had'rach! Kwisatz Had'rach!
Kwisatz Had'rach! Kwisatz Had'rach!

Muad'dib shall lead the Fremen to fre-edom

Paul Atreides! Paul Atreides! Paul Atreides! Paul Atreides!


He shall save us from nasty Harko-ohnens
He's our savior! He's our Mahdi! He is Usul! That's his nickname!

The planet they call Dune
The wasteland roamed by worms
And for the Spice, the Spice is Nice
And he shall ride the mighty Shai-Hulud
Mighty Sandworm, Old Father Eternity!

He came here! From outer space!
|: He came here! To this forsaken place! :|
He let our people go!
And he shall ride upon mighty Shai-Hu-lud!

Paul of Dune! Galactic Emperor!
Rider of worms!
Kwisatz Had'rach! Kwisatz Hadrach!

And He shall rule for just fifteen ye-ears
|:He'll buy it! In the next book!:|
And he'll go blind wandering in the de-sert
And Dune shall run for ever and e-ever
Read the sequels! Read the prequels! It's a franchise!
Kwi-SATZ! Had-RACH!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Breaking News: Met Plans 'Space Opera' for 2014

Dr. Stephen Hawking
According to an article in today's Montréal Gazette, the Metropolitan Opera's projected new opera for the 2014 season is....

A Brief History of Time

There hasn't been an official announcement from the opera house, yet. The news broke on Radio France, in an interview with Canadian librettist Alberto Manguel. Mr. Manguel revealed that he will adapt Dr. Stephen Hawking's best-selling book, which deals with black holes, physics and the nature of the universe, for the stage.

According to the Gazette article, the new opera will be scored by Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinean composer who is known for writing chamber works, film scores and large-scale concert works for chorus and orchestra.


A Brief History of Time (if that is indeed the title) will be directed by Robert LePage, who is currently directing the Met's new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Mr. LePage, who came to the Met following successful productions with Cirque de Soleil and the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, is scheduled to unveil Die Walküre in April.

Published in 1988, A Brief History of Time is one of the most successful "popular science" books of the late 20th century. It deals with complex mathematics, deep-space phenomena, and approaches to the unified field theorem, a concept that eluded Albert Einstein. In 1991, Dr. Hawking's book served as the title of a documentary based on his life.

Dr. Hawking suffers from  Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) which confines him to a motorized wheelchair.  Despite his condition, Dr. Hawking taught at Cambridge for 30 years. In the last two decades, the professor has become a beloved multimedia figure and something of an international icon. His appearances have included The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and on "Keep Talking", a song by progressive rock band Pink Floyd.

IV:XXXIII

John Cage in his kitchen.

An old college buddy of mine just sent me an MP3 being sold currently on Amazon. So I thought I'd oblige him with a review.

John Cage's groundbreaking piano piece 4'33"
uses clever harmonic development to make a profound statement of great musical depth. Celestial harmonies resonate throughout the piece as the lush orchestration (written to be played by a single performer) develops with fluid textures and rock-solid rhythms that echo the very bones of the Earth.



The opening theme of Tacit 1 is a profound one, echoing back to the pauses that feature in Anton Bruckner's mighty Second Symphony. In Tacit 2, Cage's use of rests, played in a complicated fugue has been known to move audience members, and yes, critics, to tears.

The final section, Tacit 3 builds to a powerful climax, with silent thunder resonating back and forth as the composition ticks down into its final minute. The theme returns again, making a profound, shattering statement as the pianist shifts on the bench in order to reach the middle C on the keyboard. But the C is never heard, replaced by strange microtones that are inaudible to all but the most cultured music lover.

And for only a buck, you can now own this fine studio MP3 recording of Mr. Cage's audacious work as performed and released by The Sound Corporation. All you have to do is click the link in this article and buy it. Send it to your friends. Send it to your enemies. It's the perfect IPod stuffer.

John Cage was one of the most revolutionary, groundbreaking composers of the 20th century. And by all accounts (and a photograph published by British symphonic commentator Norman Lebrecht) he could make a mean pasta sauce.

P.S.: This article was written in 4 minutes, 33 seconds. I think Mr. Cage would have liked it.


A live performance of 4'33".

Happy Birthday, Beethoven!

Today marks the 240th birthday of composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
Happy 240th Birthday, Ludwig!

Beethoven is crucial to the importance of the development of Western music. His body of work stands at the crossroads between the 18th century and the 19th, between the codification of "classical" style and the Romantic period that followed.

The music of Beethoven is rooted in formal structures: sonata forms, dance movements, and rondos. But throughout the three periods of his career, those structures were used in new ways, to express power and emotion.

Beethoven established himself early as an uncompromising, virtuoso pianist. He was one of the first composers to freelance, establishing himself as an equal to the noble class and paving the way for how composers did business in the 19th century.  His early concertos and symphonies became popular with Vienna audiences, who took the German-born composer for one of their own.
But it was his Third Symphony, the Eroica, that broke fresh ground, revising and expanding the symphony in terms of size, shape and form.

The Eroica marks the beginning of Beethoven's fertile 'middle' period, which includes works like the Fifth Symphony, the 'Razumovsky' Quartets and his lone opera, Fidelio. The premiere of the 'Eroica' also coincides with the "Heilingstadt Testament", a letter written to the composer's brothers where he confessed his growing deafness and resolved to carry on creating music.


The last years of Beethoven's life were spent in silence, as his hearing had completely failed. But this period led to some of his most experimental work, pushing the boundaries of music into new directions. The final piano sonatas (including the Hammerklavier) date from this period. So does the massive Missa Solemnis, and the final string quartets, which include the difficult Grosse Fugue.

It was his final symphony, the Ninth, that would summate his career. The Ninth was longer than any other symphony written before it, with expanded movements that stormed the heavens and reflected on cosmic truths. In the final movement, Beethoven added the voice to the orchestra in a whol new way, using four vocal soloists and a massive choir to create the triumphant shout of the 'Ode to Joy.' The Ninth is more than just a symphony: it is the closest thing music lovers have to a national anthem.

Ten Operas I'd Really Like To See: Redux

As a quick break from all the reviews and opera guides that tend to make up the backbone of this blog, I thought that I'd write a quick piece on operas I've never been able to see in the theater.
A near miss: William Tell


A lot of these "misses" have been due to illness, bad luck, or simply bad timing. Some of them are operas that have never "caught on" in North America--or Europe for that matter. So here's a stack of operas I've never seen "live" in the theater.

(And by the way, this is taking the place of the "wish list" posts of operas I really want the Met to think about doing. Enjoy.)

1) Arabella
I missed my chance the last time the Met did this opera, with Kiri te Kanawa in the title role and Christian Thielemann conducting. (Actually, the 2008 Renée Fleming DVD is playing as I write this and gave me the idea for the piece.) This is one of the five Strauss operas I haven't seen live. The others are Guntram, Feuersnot, Die Schweigsame Frau, and Friedenstag.

2) Guillaume Tell/Gugliemo Tell
Rossini's tale of rebellion in Switzerland is an unlikely opera to see live anytime soon. The role of Arnold is difficult to cast and the work is nearly as long as Die Meistersinger. But the music is gorgeous, and we ain't just talking about the famous overture. And just to make things more interesting, I'd like to see it in the original French.

3) Mathis der Maler
This major opera by Paul Hindemith was produced at the New York City Opera in 1995--but I wasn't living in New York that year (or working in this industry yet.) Last night, I picked up the EMI recording so there'll be something more about this work in the next couple of weeks. Mathis retells the story of German painter Matthais Grünewald, creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Like Meistersinger and Hans Pfitzner's lesser-known work Palestrina, Hindemith's opera is deeply concerned with the connection between music and medieval German art.


4) Béatrice et Bénédict
Berlioz' Shakespearean comedy (based on Much Ado About Nothing) focuses on the bickering lovers that remain the most popular characters from that opera. As James Levine is something of a Berlioz aficionado, bringing us La Damnation de Faust, Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens in recent years, it's about time for B et B to take the stage.

5) The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya
I missed the bus on an opportunity to see this work when it was presented by the Mariinsky Theater in New York a few years ago. The so-called "Russian Parsifal" has gorgeous music from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the most Romantic of the "Mighty Handful": five composers who revolutionized music in 19th century Russia.

6) Prodaná nevěsta ("The Bartered Bride")
Bedrich Smetana's comedy is another opera that continues to elude. The Met's legendary run of performances ended on November 1, 1996, three weeks before I started at Citysearch and began my writing career. I think it's time for a comeback.


7) Die Wunder das Heliane
I fell in love with Korngold's dream-like opera back in grad school. Heliane requires bigger resources than Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Like that opera, it has a confusing, pseudo-religious libretto where most of the characters lack names. But oh, that opening wash of harmonies and the glorious "Ich ging zu ihm," an aria recently recorded by La Fleming on her Homage collection....

8) Any Opera by Vincenzo Bellini: 
Beatrice di Tenda, La Sonnambula, I Capuletti e i Montecchi, Norma, I Puritani
I love the way Bellini writes for the voice, but I've never sat through one of his operas in the theater. At least I'm honest about it.

9) Maskarade:
I'm familiar with this high-speed operatic comedy by Danish composer Carl Nielsen due to an excellent Decca recording by Ulf Schirmer. But I'd love to see an ensemble cast tackle it in the theater. This will probably require a trip to Scandinavia.

10) All the Verdi operas I haven't seen yet:
For the record, the list is: ObertoUn Giorno di RegnoNabuccoI LombardiI Due FoscariGiovanna D'ArcoAlziraI MasnadieriIl CorsaroJerusalemLuisa MillerI Vespri Siciliani and Aroldo. 

I think the Met is due to revive Nabucco in the next few years, and I've been lucky to see Foscari and Vespri on old DVDs from La Scala. We'll get there, eventually.


Footage of Renée Fleming singing the title role in Arabella, with Julia Kleiter as Zdenko/Zdenka.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Concert Review: "Young Gun" Nézet-Séguin Takes Alice Tully Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin in action.
On Monday night, a free concert by the Juilliard Orchestra gave New Yorkers a chance to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin, taking a break from his duties leading Don Carlo at the Met. The 35-year-old French-Canadian maestro, who is scheduled to take over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2011 showed his conducting chops with a bold program of 20th century music.


First up was the Third Piano Concerto by Serge Prokofiev. Alan Woo played the solo part, a second-year Juilliard student whose lanky build and long fingers recalled another Russian composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff. Like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev was a virtuoso performer as well as a composer. The "Prokofiev Three" is not a long work, but it requires nerves of steel and fingers to match. Mr. Woo displayed both.

In addition to noble themes and slow, elegaic melodies, there are passages in the first and third movements when the soloist has to play with both hands in the same octave, one on the white keys and the other trilling on the black. Mr. Woo met these individual challenges with assured technical skill. Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted the large student orchestra with gusto, connecting with the soloist and driving the orchestra forward through the three movements.

The second half of the program featured the original version of Maurice Ravel's ballet score Daphnis et Chloë.. Written in 1910, the ballet was later adapted into a pair of orchestral suites, which are popular concert item. But it is rare to hear the work as Ravel originally intended it, complete with a wordless, melismatic mixed chorus that adds the texture of human voices to the already enormous orchestra.

Commanding the Dessoff Choirs along with the expanded Juilliard Orchestra, Mr. Nézet-Séguin led an exciting performance of the work, maintaining Ravel's narrative drive despite the absence of dancers from the stage. The student orchestra responded well to his direction, producing ferocious rhythms for the work's central "Barbarian Dance" and dreamy textures for the romance of the work's titular characters.

Exceptional performances from the principal horn, English horn and alto flute made this Daphnis an immersive, thrilling experience. The tricky passage at the start of Part III, where the strings enter in a 10-part ensemble while removing their mutes is just one example of the precise nature of Ravel's vision. Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought the final pages of the work home with a mighty climax, a thunderous wall of sound that belies the impression that impressionistic music always means "quiet."

Into The Woods: A Practical Guide to Pelléas et Mélisande

Mary Garden, the first Mélisande.
This Friday, the Metropolitan Opera presents a long overdue revival of Pélleas et Mélisande, the lone opera by French composer Claude Debussy. Pelléas presents a classic love triangle against a fairy-tale background, set to strange, dream-like music that could only come from Debussy's pen. The work is adapted from the play of the same title, by French Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy's version focuses on the two main characters and omits scenes for the castle servants. The work combines words and music into a seamless whole where the drama is expertly supported by the orchestra. It sounds like no other opera.

Hunting in the forest, the Prince Golaud (Gerald Finley) discovers Melisande, (Magdalena Kozena) a mysterious girl with long blonde hair. He marries her and brings her home. She immediately falls in love with Golaud's brother, Pelléas (Stéphane Degout) although the "couple" never consummate their relationship. Eventually, Golaud kills Pelléas in a fit of rage. Melisande gives birth to Golaud's child, and dies. The entire work takes place in a shadowy dream-world, the mythical kingdom of "Allemonde" ("All the world") which could be anywhere.

The music for Pelléas uses a unique, shifting tonality, where light and shade dapple through the score, providing support for the almost conversational dialogue. There is one (offstage) chorus. There are no arias or "hit numbers." In fact, there are only two points in the opera's four-hour length where the orchestra is instructed to play forte (loud). Berlin Philharmonic music director Sir Simon Rattle will be making his Metropolitan Opera debut in the pit, conducting this run of performances.

Here's three recommendations:

Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Pierre Boulez
Pelléas: George Shirley
Mélisande: Elisabeth Söderstrom
Golaud: Donald McIntyre

Pierre Boulez brings some needed clarity to this admittedly murky opera. Boulez takes a brisk approach to the score, allowing the orchestra to flex its muscles and bringing out the shimmering textures of Debussy's orchestration. This set remained out of print in North America for about 20 years, and was reissued as part of Sony Opera House, an invaluable series of great reissues from the CBS, Sony Classical and RCA archives.

If you want a studio version of the opera with no background hiss or coughs from the audience, this is the one to get. George Shirley is a solid presence as Pelléas. He is well matched with the great Elisabeth Söderstrom, a fine singing actress. Donald McIntyre, who would later sing Wotan in the Boulez Ring at Bayreuth, is ideal casting as the heart-broken Golaud.

Royal Philharmonic cond. Vittorio Gui
Pelléas: Hans Wilbrink
Mélisande: Denise Duval
Golaud: Michel Roux

This live recording is one of many made by John Barnes, (archivist of the Glyndebourne Festival) that have been released in recent years by Naxos. Recorded in 1963, it sat in the vaults until 2009.

The intimate Glyndebourne opera house is a fine recording venue, and Debussy's work comes to life as a living, breathing work of theater. Conductor Vittorio Gui takes an unconventional, "Italianate" approach to the opera, yet his performance has passion without going into Wagnerian excess. Hans Wilbring is an ardent Pelléas. This recording is worth hearing also for the performance of soprano Denise Duval, who created the role of Blanche in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. One of the great "lost" recordings of the 20th century.


Orchestre symphonique de Paris cond. Roger Désormière
Pelléas: Jacques Jensen
Mélisande: Iréne Joachim
Golaud: Henri Etchiverry

This is an invaluable recording in monaural sound, made during the German occupation of France in 1941. It was a bold move to record this most French of modern operas while the Nazis occupied the city, but the results are simply electric. Désormière's reading of the complete score (the first ever recorded) would set the template for future conductors who wanted to drown Debussy's opera in its own darkness. Yet light shines through, especially in the Well Scene and the opera's gorgeous Interludes.

The EMI remastering cannot hide the fact that this set was recorded in the era of 78s, a decade before commercial opera recording became a viable industry, but that does not lower its value to the listener. The excellent bonuses include three 1904 recordings of Debussy songs featuring Mary Garden (who created the role of Mélisande) and the composer himself at the piano.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.